Science minister's coyness on evolution worries researchers

Gary Goodyear's refusal to say whether he believes in evolution has left scientists questioning what that means for Canadian research.

Federal Science Minister Gary Goodyear's refusal to say whether he believes in evolution has left scientists questioning what that means for Canadian research.

Dolph Schluter, a professor at the University of British Columbia, told in an email that he was "first flabbergasted and then embarrassed" when he heard Goodyear's response to a reporter's question about whether he believed in evolution.

"I'm not going to answer that question," Goodyear, federal minister of state for science and technology, told the Globe and Mail in an article published Tuesday. "I am a Christian, and I don't think anybody asking a question about my religion is appropriate."

Goodyear, a former chiropractor and member of Parliament for the Ontario riding of Cambridge, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

However, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's spokesman, Kory Teneycke, alleged in an interview with the Canadian Press Tuesday that Goodyear made the remarks after he was ambushed by a reporter who began questioning his religious beliefs during an interview about federal science policy. He added that creationism was not on the government's science agenda.

Schluter, who holds a Canada research chair in evolutionary biology, expressed concern that Goodyear's job as minister of state is to guide the development and administration of science policy in Canada.

'We can't have people in government who ignore the facts because it doesn't jive with their personal religious beliefs.'— Steven Carr, biologist

He said evolution is the foundation of modern biology, used every day by scientists, and answers about it have nothing to do with religion.

"Anyone who confuses the two ought not to be holding the purse strings," he said.

Steven Carr, a biology professor at the Memorial University of Newfoundland, said he finds it shocking that the minister would duck the question.

However, he criticized the way it was framed as a question of belief.

"None of us who use evolution or do research in evolution 'believe' in evolution," he said. "It's a matter of accepting a vast body of information that's been collected from all fields of human investigation."

Science or religion?

Nevertheless, he said, he has difficulty with the fact that Goodyear apparently considered a question about science to be a question about religion.

That suggests Goodyear doesn't accept evolution, he said.

"I find it difficult to read the response and conclude otherwise," he said. "We can't have people in government who ignore the facts because it doesn't jibe with their personal religious beliefs. To the extent that this is going on with the minister, it raises very serious questions .… Exactly the same attitudes had enormous implications in the States under the previous administration."

'Religion and science are not necessarily incompatible.'— Lori Beaman, religious studies professor

Michael Rudnicki, a University of Ottawa professor who does research on stem cells — a type of research that some religious groups oppose — said he would like some clarity on Goodyear's views.

Rudnicki, who is also scientific director of the Sprott Centre for Stem Cell Research at the Ottawa Health Research Institute, said because Canada is exceptionally strong in stem cell research he would think the country's science minister would be an advocate for such work.

"If he has personal issues, perhaps he shouldn't be the minister," Rudnicki said in a telephone interview.

Janet Rossant, chief of research at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children, also had concerns about the implications for science leadership in Canada.

"Clearly — since evolution is fundamental to modern biological and medical research — if we're looking to move these areas forward, we need to be absolutely clear that from the very top down, people who are involved in running science in this country understand the process of science and scientific theories and facts today," she said in a telephone interview.

Lori Beaman, a religious studies professor at the University of Ottawa who researches the context of religion in Canada, said she thinks public officials do have the obligation to be clear about their positions on issues such as evolution.

"I don't see this as an issue of religious freedom, as that is usually invoked to protect religious belief [or] action, not to preserve a wish to be silent," said Beaman in an email.

Belief may not affect political actions

However, Beaman, who also holds a Canada Research Chair, said she is also concerned about any assumption that Goodyear's religious beliefs might put into question his belief in science or the scientific method.

"Religion and science are not necessarily incompatible, nor does the holding of religious beliefs negate one's belief in the benefits and wonders of science."

Margaret Somerville, founding director of the McGill Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law in Montreal, said even if Goodyear's religious beliefs are not compatible with science, as is the case for creationists who believe the world was created directly by God several thousand years ago, it does not mean he will apply them when making political decisions.

"While I believe that politicians should never act contrary to their consciences, when acting in a public — not personal — role, they may need to take decisions that they would not take in a personal context," she said.

She added that Goodyear's obligations to Canada and Canadians include promoting freedom of scientific enquiry and seeking the benefits of science within the limits set by ethics and law.

"Consequently, I would hope that if a worthy research project on evolution were proposed, the minister would agree it should be funded."

While Somerville was surprised by Goodyear's comments in the media, she acknowledged that the situation may have been difficult for him.

"My impression was that the minister was feeling defensive and handled it badly. As a religious person, he might have reason to feel that way, as the media are often not kind to religion or people in the public square with religious beliefs, especially, I find, politicians."

Funding strategy a bigger issue, researchers say

Dr. Jacques Galipeau, professor of medicine and oncology at Sir Mortimer B. Davis Jewish General Hospital and McGill University in Montreal, said it isn't necessary to drag Goodyear through the mud because he might be a creationist — as long as he puts money into research funding.

"The core issue that is truly frightening is that Canada could put itself out of the game" with respect to the knowledge-based economy, he said in a telephone interview.

Beaman said she is more concerned that Goodyear says the government is focused on improving Canada's commercialization of research.

"In these comments he seems to be articulating an approach to research that is extremely damaging to our research community, and that is the notion that if we can't sell it, it isn't worth doing."

Carr said he was similarly concerned.

"It should be obvious … that discovery-based research has been the bedrock of all applied sciences," he said, adding that diverting money away from such research toward targeted industrial research is wrong-headed and will seriously damage the Canadian economy.

With a file from the Canadian Press